Generosity 101, with Professor Paul

immigrat rally

Reference: 2 Corinthians 8:1-15, Deuteronomy 15:7-11

The Macedonians had “severe trials” and “extreme poverty,” according to Paul. These remote, poor foreigners were a contrast with the rather affluent Corinthians settled into the greatness of the Empire. Ironically, they put the Corinthians to shame when it came to generosity, giving even beyond their means to help others not personally known to them, living far away and with a different culture, government and language. It was enough for the Macedonians that there was a need.

It is a well-established human instinct that we “take care of our own.” It is equally well-established in Christianity that we take care of everybody we possibly can. This is perhaps best told by Jesus in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37), in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” It turns out everyone is my neighbor, beyond family, borders or ethnicity. As Pope Francis points out, it is our job as Christians to “build bridges, not walls.”

The contrast between selfishness and Christian love is terribly awkward for people who like to think of themselves as devout Christians, but who avoid facing the consequences of that commitment. Because Christianity doesn’t happen off in a corner. It happens at the center of the Lord’s earth, in the middle of life. And we are the species chosen by God to be responsible for taking care of things on that earth. It cannot be achieved by saving souls into a parallel “Christian” earth different from the only one we have been given by the Lord. For better or worse, God has planted us in that planet and expects us to express his will squarely in it.

Jesus is very clear what that will is. It is about loving others. He himself is the ideal role model. He outlines the ethics of it in the Beatitudes (see Matthew 5:3-12). He connects it to the Old Covenant in Matt. 22:36-40. He expands the boundaries in calling for us to love our enemies (Matt. 5:43-47). He suggests how it is specifically done in Matt. 25. These are but a few of the places in the Gospel where he lays it out.

As the Christian community develops in the first century, Paul spells out that Christian ethic, with the Macedonians as an example. Many things have changed in the two millennia since then. But the ethic remains the same.

As Jesus notes, there is nothing special about loving your friends and family. The pagans and tax collectors do that, too, he points out. What makes Christian ethics different is that the love of Jesus is for everyone. Because the love expressed on the Cross is for sinners, and sin by definition is a hostile act against God, God’s love is always directed at those in need of reconciliation, enmity in need of healing. While we cannot atone for others, of course, we are nevertheless called as Christians to follow that example and love without boundaries, as best we can.

There have been many over the centuries who have tried hard to follow Jesus, to love the neighbor even when that person is a foreigner or otherwise “not one of us,” however defined. There are many also in America today.

Yet when I talk to people who don’t attend church, that is not the message they have gotten from Christians. Nor does it appear to be the way evangelical Christians, at least, express themselves politically. Not that the political realm is ever a perfect expression of Christian ethics. The psalmists advice to “put not your trust in princes” (Ps. 146) should always be kept in mind. But every so often, it seems as if the contrast between Christian ethics and political behavior is defined so sharply, it becomes necessary to witness to the painfulness of the divide. I can recall many American Christians, for example, criticizing German Christians for not publicly speaking out against Hitler. Yet speaking out in such circumstances is not so easy. It carries consequences, as mentioned above, sometimes of a very serious nature; prison, loss of a job or other economic penalty, loss of prestige or standing, actions against your children, shunning by colleagues.

It is necessary to speak out right now, with the possible consequences not at all as severe as those faced by German Christians. The action of the current administration jailing the children of undocumented immigrants or refugees and/or separating them from their parents cannot be ignored as being business as usual. The vociferous support for the action by many evangelical Christians is especially troubling. We do not seem to be reading the same Gospel. Nor do Paul’s comments, in inspired Scripture, on generosity to poor foreigners seem to be reaching everyone in church. A limit has been exceeded.

Perhaps we have forgotten what it means to be pro-life. Support for the unborn is commendable, but rather hypocritical if not matched by support for children who are born. In the God-given natural order, the purpose of pregnancy is in its outcome. It is not an end in itself. Funnily enough, Jesus is quite specific in mentioning both strangers and those in prison as among the most in need of our support (Matt. 25:36,43). It would seem obvious that all those who turn out so faithfully to march on behalf of unborn children would turn out to march equally for the children born to experience the current trauma. And if they do not, one can forgive the unchurched for being puzzled by what Christianity is about.

One suspects the Corinthians were pretty clear on what Paul was telling them, even if we don’t know how well they responded. It still is quite a clear message even after all these centuries and across the differences in culture and situation between us and the Corinthians of the Roman Empire. The conclusion remains the same also. The Jesus who loves without boundaries ends the story of the Good Samaritan with the comment “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:37).

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